Monday, September 7, 2015

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones

I admire authors that can pull off well-written epistolary novels. To find the right balance between epistle and narrative without losing the reader is tricky to say the least. Too many internal thoughts by the character and you threaten to bore the reader. Too many flashbacks and you lose the immediacy of the action. Too few points of view and you wonder what motivates the other characters. If I were a writer I would think the chances of writing a boring, passive story would skyrocket with this format. Not so for Kelly Jones. She manages the technique well creating a strong character voice with humor and using few words creating a strong narrative arc and setting. Not easy, but she kept my interest throughout the story. Some might feel ping-ponged by all the chicken facts. However, Jones nicely ties them in with Sophie's superstitions of what she thinks she is seeing and the scientific facts. A clever juxtaposition, but we will get to that later.

Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown has moved from Los Angeles to a farm that her family inherited from her mother's great-uncle. Her mom knows how to run a farm but she is working full-time and can't help explain things. Sophie's dad lost his job and he's somewhat useless at figuring out equipment or even pruning. Sophie's got more smarts doing research at the library and contacting experts by writing letters when she's faced with a problem. Her dad could learn a thing or two from her. Sophie explores the farm on her own finding a hen pecking around a hen house. She names her hen, Henrietta, and is off to the library to learn how to take care of chickens. Sophie finds an advertisement in the barn for the Redwood Farm Supply company and writes them an old-fashioned letter, when she can't find them on the World Wide Web, asking for advice on caring for chickens. When a woman shows up at the farm saying she lost a chicken that looks like Henrietta, Sophie does some research only to find out things are not as they seem. Sophie meets another kid her age and gets help solving her chicken mystery.

Sophie writes letters to her dead grandma and Uncle Jim. The epistolary format works well in this regard as it helps keep them alive and shows that Sophie really misses them. My mom died this summer and I find myself talking to her in my head, much like Sophie's letters. I do the same thing with my grandma who I was close to when she was alive. Kelly Jones creates a strong and funny voice as Sophie corresponds with them. They don't write back so it's important when the author adds the correspondence with Agnes at the Redwood Farm Supply company. Her letters are full of typos and there is something fishy about them even though her advice is sound. The author does a great job balancing internal monologue with action and dialogue to keep my interest going.

Sophie's mom is smart, her dad struggles with problem-solving, and Sophie dives right into things not feeling sorry for herself nor lacking courage to try new things. She's terrified of speaking but recognizes when she needs to say something even when her knees are clanging together. Her mixed heritage and the townspeople's racist stereotyping is subtly shown in different situations. Sophie doesn't take it personally. She expects it and recognizes that comments were made in ignorance versus maliciousness. The comments range from people assuming Sophie's mom is from Mexico when she was born in the United States and is as American as them or the librarian assuming Sophie is a migrant worker.

Sophie describes the chickens like magic. One floats. One disappears. One is like Medusa. Eventually, Sophie learns all the unusual characteristics of the chickens from scientific facts. I was a bit confused by this at first like Sophie but it becomes clear as the author shows right after each incident the reason it happened such as the floating chicken. If the explanations didn't come right away I would have been really lost and it helps setup for the twist at the end. I did think the motivations of the villain were not clear. The explanation at the end was somewhat weak, but it doesn't take away from the other fun plot surprises.

Our library doesn't have bucketfuls of children's epistolary novels. The few I can think of are "Dear Mr. Henshaw" or "Stargirl." Actually more picture books spring to mind such as "The Day the Crayons Quit" or "I Wanna Iguana" or "Dectective LaRue: letters from the investigation" or "The Jolly Postman." Teachers like the picture books as mentor texts so I might be more in tune with them than fiction. Whether the epistolary novel is hard to write or not, or few and far between, Kelly Jones hatched a winner with this one.

5 Smileys

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